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Greensboro companies want political support for military tracking device

by Jordan Green

Two Greensboro companies under contract with a military-university research program are testing a prototype of a tracking device that could help the military better coordinate forays into rugged terrain. The inventers are courting US legislators in a bid for political support that could determine whether the devices are manufactured in North Carolina or Pennsylvania.

The two companies, Mercury Data Systems and A3 IT Solutions, are developing a mobile tracking device they call a ‘TrakPoint’ to allow soldiers and emergency first responders to monitor each other’s position in areas where a global positioning system, or GPS, fails, such as rugged terrain, dense jungle or burning buildings. The TrakPoint utilizes computer software that processes information from a GPS, barometer, gyroscope and compass, and determines which is the most accurate measure, said Rich Guarino, a partner at A3 IT Solutions.

‘“I’ve got a military GPS device, but I have to go out into an open field to get a GPS signal,’” said Guarino, noting that tall buildings disrupt communications in A3 IT Solutions, fifth floor office suite in the US Trust Center Building in downtown Greensboro.

Along with monitoring each other’s positions, the TrakPoint allows individuals to stay connected with a command center. The TrakPoint sends out a signal to announce the individual’s location, while a personal data assistant, or PDA device, allows the individual to know where he and the other members of the network are located. In an urban setting, a floor plan could be loaded into the system that would potentially be useful to firefighters or blind persons.

‘“We originally started working on this because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,’” said John Taylor, president of Mercury Data Systems. ‘“People saw the need for people to be able to trace their way into a cave. If they found something explosive in the cave, maybe they wouldn’t be the one to disarm it, but they would need to be able to retrace their steps so someone else could do it.’”

The two companies received a contract worth about $6 million from Pennsylvania State University’s Electro-Optics Center in April, said Guarino. The Eletro-Optics Center, in turn, is funded through the University Strategic Partnership, a funding stream set up by the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency to encourage university and private sector research, said agency spokesman Clem Gaines. Greensboro’s NC A&T University is also a member of the University Strategic Partnership, he added.

Guarino returned from Thailand in late May from a field test of the TrakPoint prototype conducted with the Royal Thai Air Force and the US Naval Postgraduate School. The two companies plan to conduct more field tests and fine-tune the device’s engineering before they start manufacturing it for sale.

Taylor estimates it will be another year before production begins. Additional field tests will take place in the dense jungle of Thailand’s northern border and along its coast. The TrakPoint currently weighs a couple ounces and is the size of a box of business cards, but the companies plan to get it down to the size of a matchbox so it can be sewn into a soldier’s or emergency first responder’s uniform, Taylor said.

The two companies are courting members of Congress for support of the program in an elaborate dance that could determine the eventual location of a manufacturing facility. Leaders of the two companies also make no secret of their expectation of incentives from local and state government in return for creating high-tech jobs. Taylor named Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Raleigh and eastern North Carolina, and Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat who represents Johnstown, Pa. and the Pittsburgh suburbs, as legislators who have expressed an interest in supporting the technology with more federal funding.

He said he also expects a visit from the staff of Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Republican and North Carolina’s senior senator.

‘“A congressman is lobbying for their home jurisdiction,’” Guarino said. ‘“They don’t have direct say in any kind of [contract] award, but they’ll advocate for you. For doing that they try to make sure the jobs come there.’”

Both Murtha, a vocal supporter of the Electro-Optic Center, which is located in his district, and Etheridge want any future manufacturing facility to be built in their home districts, Taylor added.

Taylor said he would favor building the factory in Greensboro, or at least somewhere in North Carolina, but he makes no secret of his expectation that state and local governments would step in with an incentives package to seal the deal.

‘“We would be looking for the right kind of economic development support,’” he said. ‘“It might be tax breaks, it might be training incentives, or it might be facilities and infrastructure.’”

Two trends work in Mercury Data Systems and A3 IT Solutions’ favor. The Bush administration’s so-called Global War on Terrorism, which includes ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, wears on with no end in sight, making military procurement a bona-fide growth industry. And the state of North Carolina’s $242.5 million incentive package to get Dell to build a computer factory in Winston-Salem in 2004 set up an expectation that the state will subsidize other businesses that promise much-needed jobs.

The North Carolina Military Business Center, an economic development center in Fayetteville, announced a campaign to increase defense contracting in the state on June 1. A 2004 study commissioned by the Center found that while North Carolina has the 4th largest number of military personnel in the country, it ranks 23rd in the value of its defense industry contracts.

Recent statements by elected officials indicate that momentum in the Tar Heel State is growing behind the idea of taxpayer support for local companies that market their products to the military.

‘“We need the [North Carolina Military Business Center] to connect companies, military, elected officials and economic development organizations to work together to expand military contracts for North Carolina businesses,’” a press release by the organization quotes Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue as saying.

So far, Taylor is less than satisfied with the political support local companies like his have received from elected officials.

‘“I think it’s a problem that there’s a lack of political support for new companies,’” he said. ‘“In the state of North Carolina, less than one percent of DOD dollars go to local companies. If you go to western Pennsylvania ‘— Congressman Murtha’s district ‘— you would be amazed to see the number of local companies that receive DOD contracts. Our politicians need to do a better job of making sure that [Defense Department] money spent in North Carolina goes to local companies.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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